Every NBA Team's Biggest Surprise of the Season

Ben Shapiro@benshapironyc1 Analyst IIIApril 11, 2012

Every NBA Team's Biggest Surprise of the Season

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    Every NBA season has a set of expected storylines. 

    Is anyone really that shocked by the battle for the MVP Award among LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul

    Are we standing mouths agape at the realization that the Bulls, Thunder and Heat are among the league's best teams? 

    The spectacular Blake Griffin dunks have been fun to watch, but we all knew they'd be featured front and center this season. 

    There are, however, some less expected but every bit as important developments. Each team in the league has a storyline involving either the team or an individual player that was not expected when the season began on Christmas Day 2011. 

Atlanta Hawks: The Decline of Marvin Williams

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    It was already a bad situation. After all, the Hawks selected Marvin Williams with the No. 2 pick of the 2005 NBA draft over some player named Chris Paul. Williams has not become the dynamic player the team expected him to be, and the Hawks have been in search of a point guard for quite some time.

    Still, it's a bit of a surprise that things have actually gotten worse this season. Especially when one considers that injuries to Joe Johnson had at one point opened the door for Williams to receive more minutes and thus improve his standing in Atlanta.

    That's not what happened, though. Williams is averaging the lowest amount of points and minutes per game since his rookie season, and shooting the worst percentage of his career from the field.

    He already was primed for the "bust" label but this season may end up affixing it to him permanently.  

Boston Celtics: The Emergence of Avery Bradley

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    When Avery Bradley entered the University of Texas in 2008, he was one of the nation's most highly rated high school recruits. 

    He left after a freshman season that didn't seem to live up to his top-recruit hype and was then drafted No. 19 overall by the Boston Celtics. 

    On a Doc Rivers team with players like Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Bradley's minutes were bound to be limited. Thus, his window for production was slim as well. 

    This season, with Ray Allen dogged by nagging injuries, Bradley was able to get a small opportunity to showcase his talents. Since the All-Star break, he has done just that.

    Over his last 10 games, Bradley is averaging 12.6 points per game and shooting over 50 percent from the field. Bradley is only 6'2", and that may prevent him from ever being a viable starting shooting guard in the NBA. The point guard position seems set in Boston as well, with Rajon Rondo manning it.

    Nonetheless, Bradley's play has ensured him of a role on next season's team and one that goes beyond just a few minutes. He'll be a key part of the Celtics for years to come, and with the Big Three really showing their age, his emergence couldn't have come at a better time for the Celtics.  

Charlotte Bobcats: This Team Is Terrible

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    To be clear, no one had the Bobcats ticketed for the playoffs when the season began. They were expected to be bad. 

    Not this bad, though. 

    The Bobcats are simply awful. Nearly unwatchable. On Monday night, they squared off against the second-worst team in the NBA, the Washington Wizards, and lost by a score of 113-85 at home! 

    Charlotte has the worst record at 7-48. They score the fewest points per game at 88.1 and allow the third most at 101.2. Their point differential of 13.1 per game is the worst in the league by a margin of 6.6 points. That's a larger margin per game than the total margin of the second-worst team in the league.

    This team looks lost. They have only a few players worth retaining and luckily they will have a very good chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick in this June's loaded NBA draft. Teams like this are usually a lot more than just one player away from success, though.  

Chicago Bulls: Their Record Without Derrick Rose

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    Once again, the Chicago Bulls are on their way to owning the best record in the NBA. 

    At 44-14, they have a one-and-a-half game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    More impressively, the Bulls have a record of 16-7 in games played without reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose

    That's right: The Bulls have played 23 games without Rose and are 16-7 without him. 

    If you had told most NBA fans before the season that the Bulls would have the best record in the NBA, the majority of the fans would probably have agreed. 

    However, if you had mentioned that Derrick Rose would miss 23 games, then many likely would have changed their minds. Yet that's what the Bulls have done. It's both surprising and impressive. 

Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving

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    It's not unusual when the No. 1 overall pick in the draft has a great rookie season. Then again, Kyrie Irving was not the typical No. 1 pick in the draft. 

    Sure, he had tons of talent, but talent alone rarely gets the job done in the NBA. His college pedigree was great having played for legendary Coach K at Duke University.

    The problem was that he only played in 11 games as a freshman at Duke due to an early season injury. He left after his shortened freshman season to enter the draft. 

    A point guard with almost no college experience should struggle mightily on a Cleveland team without a great selection of scorers, especially in a league jam-packed with other talented point guards for him to face on a nightly basis. 

    It hasn't panned out that way. Irving leads Cleveland in scoring. He's demonstrated an ability to get to the basket and finish, as well as a great feel for the game, especially given his very limited amount of college experience. 

    Irving has a very bright future and while that's par for the course for most top picks, his circumstances make this a bit of a surprise. 

Dallas Mavericks: The Sad Case of Lamar Odom

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    Lamar Odom came to the Dallas Mavericks under less-than-ideal circumstances. Originally included in the vetoed deal sending Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, the thought of the Lakers dealing him hurt Odom's feelings so severely that he practically forced his way out of Los Angeles.

    Be careful what you wish for.

    Odom's stay in Dallas featured a non-stop adjustment period in which he never adjusted. He alienated nearly everyone and on Monday afternoon, the entire saga came to a conclusion when the Mavericks inactivated him for the remainder of the season.

    Odom wasn't expected to be a star in Dallas, but he was expected to produce more than just career-worst stats across the board and a sudden departure from the team. 

    Odom's antics this season will probably stick with him for the remainder of his NBA career. 

Denver Nuggets: Trading Nene

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    During the 2010-2011 NBA season, the entire sports world seemed to know that the Denver Nuggets were going to eventually trade superstar Carmelo Anthony

    The package and destination weren't known, but it sure seemed like a safe bet that he would be leaving town during the season. That's what ended up happening in February 2011 when the Nuggets dealt him to the New York Knicks. 

    This season didn't start with the same sort of trade winds surrounding any of Denver's more prominent players. It still dealt one of them at the trade deadline, though. 

    Nene Hilario signed to long-term contract extension on December 14 and seemed as if he was sticking around in Denver for quite some time. The deal was for five years and $67 million. 

    A string of injuries and a willing trade partner changed all of that. On March 15, 2012, Nene was sent to the Washington Wizards as part of a three-team exchange that sent young but temperamental big man JaVale McGee to Denver.

    Regardless of whether this turns out to be a good or bad deal for Denver over the long term, it's something no one would have expected when the season started.  

Detroit Pistons: Greg Monroe's Continued Improvement

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    First, Greg Monroe had a better-than-expected rookie season. 

    Improvement this season seemed like a logical direction for his career.

    Not many thought he'd be this good, though. Monroe has become one the best big men in the league.

    He is a near-lock for a nightly double-double and he does this on a team where the opposition does not ignore him. He's the best player on the floor night in and night out in Detroit, and commands plenty of attention.

    In spite of that defensive attention, Monroe has improved his nightly scoring output from 9.4 to 15.6. His rebounding has gone from 7.5 to 9.6, and his free-throw shooting has jumped from 62.2 percent to 74.8 percent. That's a great sign for a big man who has the type of broad build that will draw plenty of contact. 

    Monroe has gone from a potential workhorse type of big man to the centerpiece of the Pistons' rebuilding. This season has been a pleasant surprise for both his teammates and fans.  

Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson

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    When Klay Thompson was selected with the No. 11 pick in the 2011 NBA draft, he was originally thought of as another cog in a crowded Golden State bench. 

    Instead, his on-court play allowed the Warriors to deal shooting guard Monta Ellis and ended up putting himself in position to start on Mark Jackson's squad. 

    Thompson's play may be the spark that sets off a basketball revival in the Bay Area. The trade that involved Monta Ellis sought to address the biggest issue plaguing the Warriors in recent years: defense.

    The trade brought former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut to the Bay. If he can stay healthy and man the middle next season, Klay Thompson could make the Warriors tough to beat.

Houston Rockets: The Disappearance of Kevin Martin

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    Yes, Kevin Martin has battled some injuries this season. Even so, he had averaged 20 or more points per game in five of the last six seasons. 

    Last year on the very same Houston team, he averaged 23.4 points per game. This year? He's at 17.1 per game, the lowest since his second season in the NBA. 

    Martin's decline has been odd. At only 29, he's not old. Martin has had some injuries, and the Rockets have undergone a change on the bench, bringing in Kevin McHale to replace Rick Adelman. 

    Regardless of the reason, the decline in scoring represents nearly a 25 percent drop-off in production from a very consistent player. That's a surprise to be sure. 

Indiana Pacers: Darren Collison's Decline

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    Just last season, Darren Collison looked like yet another in a line of young, gifted point guards with UCLA pedigrees.

    Acquired from the New Orleans Hornets, where he had filled in as a backup for Chris Paul, Collison took to starting in Indiana quite well. In 2010-2011, he averaged 13.2 points and 5.1 assists per game. 

    This season, the Pacers added David West to an offense that already featured Paul George, Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. Adding another scorer would seemingly make the job of point guard easier. 

    It hasn't panned out that way for Collison, though. He's dropped off to 10.7 points and 4.9 assists per night.

    Those aren't severe drop-offs but he's only 24 years of age and playing on a team with more talent surrounding him. Collison was expected to improve, as opposed to heading in the opposite direction this season. 

Los Angeles Clippers: Better Than Expected

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    It was one addition, and it's made a world of difference. Chris Paul came to the Los Angeles Clippers just a few weeks before the season began, but his impact was immediate and has been a story all season long. 

    Entering the season, everyone knew that Blake Griffin was going to be good. Everyone also knew that Chris Paul would make the Clippers better. Not this much better, though. 

    The Clippers finished last season with a record of 32-50 on the outside of the postseason looking in. They currently have a 34-23 record and are in position to not only make the playoffs, but also have home-court advantage in the first round. 

    It's too dramatic of a turnaround to ignore, and it's one of the season's better stories. 

Los Angeles Lakers: The Departure of Derek Fisher

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    Everyone was aware the Lakers had some issues at the point guard. It's just that seeing as how L.A. had signed Fisher to a three-year deal in July 2010, many had assumed the beloved veteran would finish out his career wearing purple and gold.

    As this season progressed, the Lakers' weaknesses at the point guard position became more and more pronounced. By the time the trade deadline was upon us, the Lakers felt that they needed to get a new point guard on the team if they hoped to make a run at the NBA Finals.

    The Lakers were able to acquire Ramon Sessions from the Cleveland Cavaliers while still retaining Fisher but the cost of Fisher's contract was too much for Lakers management to handle. They shipped him to the Houston Rockets right as the 4 p.m. trade deadline on March 15 was upon them.

    It was a shocking way for Fisher's decorated Lakers career to end.  

Memphis Grizzlies: Zach Randolph, Sixth Man

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    When Zach Randolph got injured a few days into the season, most people expected the team to struggle a bit and that Randolph would reclaim his starting power forward position when he eventually returned. 

    Wrong on both counts. Sure, the Grizzlies had a few rough patches, but they weren't totally lost without Randolph. That wasn't the big surprise, though. The big surprise was that since he's returned, Randolph hasn't been starting. 

    No, instead of starting, Randolph has joined with O.J. Mayo to form one of the league's most lethal bench combos. 

    The team has responded, too. The Grizzlies seem to be getting hot at the right time, having won six of their last seven. 

Miami Heat: The Decline of Chris Bosh's Rebounding

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    When the Big Three formed in Miami back in the summer of 2010, conventional wisdom suggested that Chris Bosh would experience a drop in scoring. The go-to guy in Toronto would now have to share touches with both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. 

    Rebounding was a different story. We're talking about a player who had averaged over 10.0 rebounds per game in three of the previous four seasons before his arrival in Miami. 

    Last season, Bosh averaged only 8.3 per game, the lowest since his rookie season in 2003-2004. That could easily have been attributed to the growing pains of blending the three superstars into one unit. 

    What's this year's excuse? Bosh is averaging only 7.7 rebounds per game. He's not even the team leader, as LeBron James is pulling down 7.9 per game.

    The Heat are playing very good basketball, but Bosh's declining rebounding stats are a surprise and not a good one.  

Milwaukee Bucks: Bye-Bye Bogut

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    Teams don't get the No. 1 overall pick all that often, so when they do get it, they generally don't trade him away. 

    That's what the Milwaukee Bucks did this past March, though. In the middle of yet another injury-plagued season from 2005 No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut, the Bucks sent him to the Golden State Warriors.

    It wasn't a bad deal for them, but it's not every day a former No. 1 overall pick gets dealt, so it definitely counts as a surprise. 

Minnesota Timberwolves : Nikola Pekovic

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    Ricky Rubio was a great story. He was better than advertised, but he came to the league with a serious reputation for flashy and fun point guard play. 

    Nikola Pekovic, on the other hand, was a second-round pick from 2008 who had barely played last season when he was first on the Timberwolves roster. 

    This season, he's morphed into a type of Kevin Love clone. The bruising big man averages 13.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game coming off the bench.

    He's made himself into a very usable option when the team needs to give Kevin Love a rest, and that alone makes him not just a surprise but also a very important part of the Timberwolves.  

New Jersey Nets: The Emergence of Gerald Green

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    When this season started, Gerald Green was a journeyman. He was a first-round pick of the Boston Celtics out of high school back in 2005. Since then he had been to Houston, Minnesota and Dallas.

    He had played overseas and was playing in the NBA Developmental League when the New Jersey Nets came calling. 

    Since that call, he's been a key member of the Nets rotation. He comes off the bench and makes an impact. Green is averaging 12.7 points per game in just 24.4 minutes per night. It's good and efficient production, as indicated by his 50.5 percent field-goal shooting. 

    Green is beginning to show the promise that made him a first-round pick back in 2005, and it's not too late. He was just out of high school back then; that means he's only 26 years old. Plenty of time left to turn this season's opportunity into a real career-changer. 

New Orleans Hornets: The Decline of Emeka Okafor

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    Forget the injuries. They've been present, but they're not the big issue. 

    The issue for Emeka Okafor, the former No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft, is that he's gone from being a bit of a bust to a serious bust. 

    He's averaging career lows in nearly every relevant statistical category, and even when he's been healthy, he's looked notably average on the court.

    It wasn't that long ago that Okafor was a guy who could be counted on to produce nearly a double-double every night.

    It seems like a long time ago for Hornets fans, who probably barely notice the difference between Okafor on the court or on the bench. 

New York Knicks: Jeremy Lin

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    For three weeks in February, Jeremy Lin burned as bright as any star in the athletic galaxy. 

    That glare has dimmed since then, and Lin has suffered a season-ending injury. Regardless, his emergence as a solid option at point guard is the feel-good story of what has been an up-and-down season for the New York Knicks. 

    Originally, he was an end-of-the-bench option for the Knicks. When the team went into a free fall in January while getting terrible production from the point guard position, Lin became an option. When he got that opportunity, he took full advantage of it, leading the Knicks on a winning streak despite missing Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire for several games. 

    He became an overnight sensation and one of the biggest surprises of the entire NBA season. Lin will be a restricted free agent this offseason, so the potential exists that he could be finished as a Knick. That seems unlikely, though. Either way, he's the best story and biggest surprise of the season for the Knicks and their fans. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: James Harden

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    Just how good can a sixth man be? 

    That's the question, and James Harden seems to make answering it quite difficult. 

    Harden entered the season as a very good sixth man. He's been even better than expected, though. 

    Playing on a team with two of the league's very best scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden has managed to score 16.7 points per game while coming off the bench. That's an increase of over 30 percent from his output of 12.2 points per game last season. 

    Harden is far from one-dimensional. He grabs rebounds, dishes assists and plays tough defense. He's a very good all-around player and has become one while playing a bench role. 

Orlando Magic: Dwight Howard Is Still on the Team

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    When the season started, it seemed like Dwight Howard was a prime candidate to be traded. He had the option of becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, and surely the Magic would want to get something in exchange for the big man, as opposed to losing him outright to another team via free agency.

    Instead, after endless trade-deadline drama, Howard picked up his one-year contract extension option that will keep under contract in Orlando through the end of the 2012-2013 season.

    That was a surprise, and it seems as if there's a decent chance that Howard could sign a long-term extension with Orlando that keeps him there for years to come as well.  

Philadelphia Sixers: A Lack of Scoring

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    Lou Williams is the sixth man in Philadelphia, but he's the No. 1 man when it comes to point production for the Sixers. 

    Among the league's weakest offensive teams, Williams isn't just a spark; he's one of the only sparks on a team that really could use a go-to offensive player in its starting rotation. 

    The Sixers aren't a terrible team by any stretch of the imagination. They play exceptional defense and are still, as of today, a playoff team.

    The lack of scoring has been a problem, though. It's not a good sign when your leading scorer averages only 15.1 points per game. When that player isn't even starting, that's a surprise, but not the good kind. 

Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash Still Elite

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    Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook...which one of these top point guards is in a tight race to win the assists-per-game stat in the NBA?   

    None of them. 

    That's right; they're all behind two guys. One is Rajon Rondo; no surprise there since Rondo has been steadily improving for years. The other is 38-year-old Steve Nash, who is in the midst of the seventh double-figure-per-game-assists season in his last eight.

    Nash is like a machine running on batteries that never lose their charge. He doesn't look old, he doesn't play old and his game is decidedly not old at all. He's one of the elite point guards in a league in which point guard is an increasingly deep position.

    Keep in mind that Nash is also the second-leading scorer on the Suns. The leading scorer on the team averages only 15.8 points per game but Phoenix is the 10th-highest-scoring team in the NBA thanks to Nash.

    I guess from this point forward, the real surprise will be when Nash is not among the elite point guards in the league.  

Portland Trail Blazers: The Total Implosion

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    This will go down as one of the more forgettable seasons in Portland Trail Blazers history. To sum up...

    They fired their coach. 

    They cut their former No. 1 overall pick, Greg Oden.

    Their other former top pick, Brandon Roy, retired before the season started due to chronic knee problems at the age of 27. 

    Their power forward is combating heart problems. 

    The Blazers weren't predicted to win a title, so the fact that the season hasn't been great isn't a surprise. It still wasn't expected to go this badly. 

Sacramento Kings: Isaiah Thomas

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    Some rookies are saddled with lofty expectations and others are only expected to make limited contributions. 

    As the final pick of what was considered to be a weak 2011 NBA draft, Thomas had decidedly limited expectations. 

    He sure wasn't expected to be the starting point guard by the time the season was near its conclusion, but that's what he is as of this slideshow. 

    Thomas has averaged 15 points and five assists in 28 games as a starting point guard. Not Hall of Fame numbers, but for a final pick of an NBA draft, it's a surprise to be sure. 

San Antonio Spurs: The Team's Record

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    Last season, the Spurs finished with the best record in the Western Conference. 

    A veteran team like the Spurs wouldn't be caught off guard in the playoffs, right? 


    The Spurs were shocked by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. 

    When they returned this season, the veteran-laden team was a year older. With the breakneck pace of the shortened season's schedule, the Spurs were surely primed for a tough season. The older players would get injured and the team's record would suffer as a result. 

    Not quite. 

    The Spurs did suffer some injuries: Manu Ginobili missed 30 games, and Tony Parker missed some time as well. The team's record, however, didn't seem to feel the effects. The Spurs sit at 40-15 and are one game behind Oklahoma City for the conference's best record. 

    The Spurs just don't play like an aging, veteran-led team. 

Toronto Raptors: Jerryd Bayless Is Still on the Bench

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    It's not that Jerryd Bayless should be starting in front of Jose Calderon; it just seems that he is deserving of more minutes either on Toronto or somewhere else. 

    In the 11 games he has started this season, he's averaged 17.8 points and 5.3 assists per game. On a team such as Toronto that clearly needs to improve, one would think they'd take advantage of having both Bayless and Calderon on the same roster. 

    A trade of some sort would seem logical, but as of now, both players are still on the Raptors roster. 

Utah Jazz: Devin Harris Is Not Cut out for Salt Lake City

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    It's been a real step backward for Devin Harris this season. His numbers have fallen off to levels not seen since the 2006-2007 season. 

    Harris, who was dealt from New Jersey to Utah in the Deron Williams trade, seemed to transition pretty well in the immediate aftermath of the deal. But in his first full season, in Utah things have not worked out that well. 

    Utah isn't an ideal situation for Harris. The team lacks a real serious scoring threat on the perimeter or at the wing positions. Al Jefferson, who leads the team in scoring, is a low-post center. 

    Harris could use a change of scenery. It could make him the subject of one of these slideshows next season, but with a more positive spin to it, of course.

Washington Wizards: Trading JaVale McGee and Nick Young

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    The Wizards entered the season with a talented, albeit temperamental group of young players. 

    Center JaVale McGee and guard Nick Young were both part of the crew. While both players carried reputations of immaturity, it was thought that the team would put up with the younger years and allow the players to develop and hopefully flourish as members of the Wizards.

    That's not what happened. 

    On March 15, the Wizards hierarchy decided they had had enough and shipped McGee to Denver and Young to the Clippers. Washington's main chip in the deal was Nene Hilario, who came to Washington from Denver sporting more consistency and maturity. 

    There's nothing wrong with Nene, but it's a bit of a surprise that the Wizards didn't stick with the younger talent.